Torture and Oxford

A controversial student at the famed university is ordered to pay damages to a Canadian abused in Tehran

Torture and oxford

Abbas Kowsari/Bloomberg/Getty Images

The son of a former Iranian president who is pursuing a doctorate at the University of Oxford under hotly contested circumstances has been ordered by an Ontario court to pay a Canadian man millions of dollars in compensation for torture he suffered while imprisoned in Iran.

Mehdi Hashemi Rafsanjani is the fourth child of Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was president of Iran from 1989 to 1997, and whose family is among the wealthiest in the country. It was while Akbar Rafsanjani was president that Houshang Bouzari crossed paths with his son, Mehdi. Bouzari had worked as an adviser to the Iranian parliament and oil ministry. But he severed ties to the government in 1987 and became an international business consultant, helping foreign companies strike deals to tap Iran’s oil wealth.

In 1991, he had signed a monster contract involving five European and Japanese companies. Soon after he got a message that President Rafsanjani and Mehdi wanted to meet with him. Bouzari was then living in Italy but he flew back to meet them. The president told Bouzari that he wanted Mehdi, then about 22 years old, to learn the oil business.

“It smelled bad from the beginning,” Bouzari said in an interview with Maclean’s. He couldn’t say no, but didn’t want the president’s spoiled son interfering in his business. “To keep him at bay, I have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars sending him all over the world, enjoying his life, going to luxury hotels. I’m sorry to say to you that my company even paid for the escort companies that the guy ordered for the hotels in Park Lane, London, Geneva, wherever you can imagine.”

This worked for awhile, but soon, says Bouzari, Mehdi, through a friend, demanded $50 million to keep the project afloat. Bouzari refused. Even had he been willing to pay, he and his partners stood to make far less than that in commission on the deal. Bouzari tried to appease Mehdi by agreeing to work as his personal adviser. He seemed mollified. But when Bouzari flew to Tehran in May 1993, the driver and bodyguard Mehdi usually sent to meet him at the airport were not there. Nine days later plainclothes security agents kidnapped him from his Tehran apartment.

Bouzari spent the next eight months in Tehran’s Evin and Towhid prisons. He was beaten about the head until his hearing suffered, and on the soles of his feet until his shoe size grew. His head was forced into a clogged toilet until he was forced to ingest its contents. He readily confessed (falsely) to spying for five different foreign intelligence agencies. “I wrote it voluntarily, with one condition. Just promise me one of you will go out, bring your pistol back, and give me one single shot into my head. They promised, but they never kept their promise,” he says.

In August 1993, Bouzari’s wife, Fereshteh Yousefi, sent $3 million to Iran’s Ministry of Information, supposedly to pay for Bouzari’s hospital treatment (Maclean’s has seen documents showing this), but Bouzari was not released until February 1994. When he got out of prison, he learned Iran had cancelled the deal he negotiated, and a new company managed by Mehdi had been formed to take over the project—confirming in Bouzari’s mind who was responsible for his torture. It took another $250,000 bribe before Bouzari got his passport back and left Iran for good. He’s been a Canadian citizen since 2002.

“When I was in Towhid, a few times I tried to kill myself,” Bouzari says. “But fortunately or unfortunately the six-foot length of the cell is not enough for you to get enough momentum to hit your head [with sufficient force] on the concrete wall. It gave me sort of a concussion, but it didn’t work. So gradually I came to understand that if I’m not dying here, there might be some reason. So then I vowed to myself, I made a pledge, that if I make it out of here, sane and in once piece and I can finally rejoin my family, one day I will [fight] for justice—not for myself only, for the sake of thousands of innocent Iranians. They got killed under torture, in the gallows, in the firing squads, in the yards, in the hands of this brutal regime.”

Bouzari initially tried to sue the Iranian government, but the court declined to hear his case because of immunity protection given to foreign countries under Canadian law. So in 2005 he instructed his lawyer Mark Arnold to file a case against seven individuals he believed played a role in his torture, including Mehdi Hashemi Rafsanjani, at the Ontario Superior Court of Justice.

None of the defendants responded, and the case lay dormant until Mehdi showed up last year at the University of Oxford—still far from Ontario, but less sheltered from Canadian justice than in Iran. Bouzari returned to court and asked for a “default judgment,” which may be awarded when a defendant fails to defend a case.

Justice Wailan Low reached a decision in August. “It is apparent from the material filed that the plaintiff, Houshang Bouzari, has endured unspeakable torture by the defendant or at his instigation,” Low wrote. The judge ordered Mehdi to pay Bouzari and his family almost $13 million in damages.

That Mehdi is a student in Britain rather than Iran makes it more likely Bouzari will be able to collect, but some at Oxford are mortified that Mehdi is among them.

Kaveh Moussavi, an associate research fellow at the University of Oxford’s Centre for Socio-Legal Studies, first noticed Mehdi at the back of a university seminar last fall. Moussavi, who was born in Iran and follows events there, recognized Mehdi and initially couldn’t believe he might be an Oxford student. Moussavi became more outraged the deeper he probed into how Mehdi was admitted. He complained. Oxford launched an inquiry. The scandal that has erupted since calls into question—at least in the minds of some—the honour of one of the oldest and most respected universities in the world.

Ali Reza Sheikholeslami, an emeritus professor at Oxford’s Wadham College, has described Mehdi’s admission as “highly discriminatory” and “smacking of favouritism.” He swore in an affidavit that Edmund Herzig, professor of Persian studies at Oxford, told a graduate student to help Mehdi prepare his application and doctoral thesis proposal about the Iranian constitution.

At the internal Oxford inquiry into the matter, Sheikholeslami also alleged that Mehdi’s application references were worthless, as they were all lackeys of his father, and that his academic background—Mehdi has a master’s degree in engineering from Sharif University of Technology in Tehran—was of “no value” to his proposed research on Iran’s constitution. Mehdi, he told the inquiry, is unqualified to study at Oxford.

Mehdi’s admission was assessed primarily by Edmund Herzig, with what the university describes as a “subsidiary role” played by Homa Katouzian, an unsalaried member of the faculty of Oriental studies. When contacted by Maclean’s, Herzig declined comment. Homa Katouzian did not respond to an interview request. Mehdi Rafsanjani, in an email to Maclean’s, said he did not receive any help preparing his application or thesis proposal and called the allegations surrounding his admission to Oxford “baseless.”

A university spokesperson confirmed to Maclean’s that the university’s usual requirement that students be proficient in English was waived for Mehdi—another cause for alarm raised by Moussavi and Sheikholeslami—but said the university found no evidence that Mehdi paid someone to write his research proposal. “The university is confident that the decision [to admit Mehdi] was made solely on academic grounds, whatever others think of that academic judgment. The admitting tutors were not under outside pressure to admit this student; nor did the university receive any financial gain, or any other inducement, for doing so. Whether or not people think the decision was sound academically, it was definitely not corrupt,” the spokesperson said in a written statement to Maclean’s.

Oxford’s registrar, however, has also written to Moussavi to say the university would review its admissions process because of his complaint. “What bigger admission that something seriously wrong happened?” Moussavi told Maclean’s. “If they found nothing, why would they want to do that?”

Besides allegations of academic fraud, there is the more serious matter that an Ontario court considers Mehdi civilly liable for torture. Process servers working on Bouzari’s behalf delivered the court’s judgment to Mehdi’s Oxford college mail slot late last month. Lawyer Arnold says he and Bouzari are now engaged in a “debt collection exercise, which will require that the Ontario judgment be made a judgment of the courts of England.”

Mehdi would not comment on the court’s decision. The university spokesperson told Maclean’s Oxford is seeking legal advice. But Kaveh Moussavi believes the decision the university must make is an ethical rather than legal one. “I was hoping once the torture ruling has come out of the Canadian court, Oxford would be shamed into throwing this man out,” he says. “But I’m astonished. Nine hundred and something years of history, and it’s being run by men who don’t understand that you don’t allow an unqualified torturer into your midst. And if the scandal is exposed, you get rid of him, and you get rid of the people who allowed him in. Unfortunately, these pygmies running this giant of a university don’t understand that.”

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.